Guerrilla warfare in the Peninsular War refers to the armed actions carried out by non-regular troops against Napoleon’s Grand Armée in Spain and Portugal during the Peninsular War. These armed men were a constant source of harassment to the French army, as described by a Prussian officer fighting for the French: “Wherever we arrived, they disappeared, whenever we left, they arrived — they were everywhere and nowhere, they had no tangible center which could be attacked.” The Peninsular War was significant in that it was the first to see a large-scale use of guerrilla warfare in European history and as a result of the guerrillas, Napoleon’s troops were tied down on the Iberian peninsula, unable to conduct military operations elsewhere on the continent. The strain the guerrillas caused on the French troops led Napoleon to dub the conflict the “Spanish Ulcer.”
A list drawn up in 1812 puts the figure of such irregular troops in Spain alone at 38,520 men, divided into 22 guerrilla bands. There was various liders, such as Francisco Abad Moreno “Chaleco“, Francisco Espoz y Mina, Joaquín Ibánez, Francisco de Longa, Juan Martín Díez “El Empecinado”, ulian Sáncez García, known as “El Charro”, Jerónimo Merino, known as “El Cura Menino”, Martin Xavier Mina, Tomás de Zumalacárregui, and others… Although locally organised militia had been deployed in Portugal and Spain before, particularly in the regions of Catalonia and Valencia, where thousands of well-organised “miquelets” (in conjunction with local militias known as “somatenes“).
Spanish/Portuguese guerrillas frequently attacked Grand Armee rear echelon components, including communication and supply lines. These guerrillas were mainly ordinary civilians, predominantly from rural areas and generally conscripted. The success of these fighters in the conflict was owed to the few men and small amount of equipment and energy required to hold a large area and disrupt French movements. The stress of the guerrilla conflict put considerable strain on Napoleon who remarked that the affair had been the one “that killed me.”
The years of fighting in Spain were a heavy burden on France’s Grande Armée. While the French were victorious in battle, they were eventually defeated, as their communications and supplies were severely tested and their units were frequently isolated, harassed or overwhelmed by partisans fighting an intense guerrilla war of raids and ambushes. The Peninsular War is regarded as one of the first people’s wars, significant for the emergence of large-scale guerrilla warfare.
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